On Tuesday, December 3, Sinai and Synapses held its first seminar exploring the interaction of religion and science. Eleven people — representing clergy, scientists and journalists — came together to learn from Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, Director of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Rabbi Bradley Artson, Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and author of the book God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology.
They each spoke about how science has changed religion (and how religion has changed science), and they each came at this question from very different perspectives. These are their formal presentations, which then led to a fantastic discussion among the group, which will soon lead to more videos and conversations surrounding how science and religion influence each other — and how they each impact both individuals and society.
Dr. Wiseman’s Presentation:Read Transcript
Geoff Mitelman: Welcome everyone to our first Sinai and Synapses seminar as we start our formal presentations from our two guests, Dr. Jennifer Wiseman and then Rabbi Brad Artson. So first, I want to introduce more officially – although you’ve heard a little bit about who she is, from her own background – but it’s a great pleasure to be able to introduce Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, who is an astronomer and is the director of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She also happens to be the project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, where she previously headed the Laboratory for Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics.
Dr. Wiseman received her bachelor’s degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard University. While a student, she co-discovered, and let me see if I get this right, Comet 114-P/Wiseman-Skiff, and she conducted post-doctoral research in star formation as a Jansky Fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and as a Hubble fellow at the Johns Hopkins University.
She was the 2001-2002 congressional science fellow of the American Physical Society, and served with staff on the Committee on Science of the U.S. House of Representatives. From 2003 to 2006, she was the program scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope. She is also an incredible speaker; she spoke at the Chautauqua Society over the summer, and she was just at the AAR in Baltimore. She is an incredible, passionate advocate for a more productive conversation surrounding science and religion. She also is on the advisory board for Sinai and Synapses. So please join me in welcoming Dr. Jennifer Wiseman.
Jennifer Wiseman: I think we’ll all sit, since we’re all friends here. So as my dad would say “oh, with all those degrees, you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” (laughter)
And I’m also not sure I can advance the slides of this thing.
So, I’m going to used to about half my time to kind of introduce us to one aspect of science, where science and, I think, science inspires deeper thought about who we are as human beings, and it touches on spirituality, and I think that is astronomy, of course, it’s my favorite.
So I thought I might show you just a few images from space, to kind of draw us into this bigger view of the cosmos, if that’s OK. So this image here is a picture of stars. And – in fact, I would say turn down the lights if you can, but if that unless that messes up the – just even just the front lights. Yeah.
So I just find this to be a spectacular image. This was a calibration picture taken with the newest camera on the Hubble Space Telescope, and it was only taken to calibrate the new camera, but then it was such a beautiful image that we’ve been using kind of as a showcase picture. And I think this just gives you an image of the beauty of stars. We all know there’s plenty of stars out there, we know the large numbers, but just to actually see what we mean by “a lot of stars,” kind of gives us a more of a gut feeling of the enormity and the beauty of the universe.
This is the core of what we call a globular cluster, and you can see the variety of stars, and here you see the different colors – reds, blues, greens, whites. Our sun is probably more like one of the – I don’t know if this thing has a pointer, and I’m not even gonna try – but more like one of these little white objects. Just kind of an average massive star. And you can see the huge variety, and also the beauty there. It looks to me like a collection of gemstones. And this is just one little cluster in our own galaxy.
So I think a nice quote for this group would be this one, by philosopher Kant. And I like this quote, and I think it’s written on his tombstone, I’ve heard – that two things fill his mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe – (we’ve heard that already this morning, as opposed to shock and awe [laughter]). And the more intensely the reflection dwells on them. And those two things that he felt filled his mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe were the starry heavens above him, and the moral law within him.
And to me, that is still strikingly true. I think all of society is still enamored with trying to understand not only the starry heavens but, I would say, all of nature. The wonders of nature, from the very large, of the cosmos, to the very small, the subatomic or the genetic codes, the things that are very small – all of that is creating a sense of wonder and awe. But also the moral law within us. Is there a moral law? What is justice, what is right and wrong? Who gets to decide what’s right and wrong? Why do we all have some sense that there’s justice or injustice out there, or even ethical boundaries for what we do? Where does that come from, and how do we apprehend these concepts? So still, today, I think these are the two realms of things that are driving a lot of human searching, and I think it’s what’s driving this conversation today.
OK, so the tool – the tools – we use for astronomy are technology-based. This is one of many, many telescopes, but this is one that’s orbiting the earth, the Hubble space telescope. It’s about the size of a school bus, and it basically advanced the field of astronomy and our understanding of the universe in amazing ways. It’s been operating for 23 years now.
And we’re discovering more and more that the universe is beautiful, as you already know, and also that the universe is active. There are lot of things happening; it’s not stagnant. This region of the sky is called Orion. And many of you are familiar with this area. This is a picture not taken with Hubble, but taken with a telescope on the ground, and it gives you a much broader field of view than you can get with Hubble. So different telescopes have different strengths, different capabilities, and you’ll see the bright star Betelgeuse up here, and Rigel down here. Betelgeuse is an unstable red giant, and it could explode any day now – within the next hundred thousand years or so (laughter).
These stars, and the belt, the sword, or if you look closely, there’s fuzziness around them. And astronomers call anything fuzzy a nebula. So if we zoom down into that little green box area, in particular down to the bottom of this area, with – […] anyway, let’s zoom in on that little bottom part of that box with the Hubble telescope, where you can see more detail, and that’s what you see. So, this is an image that shows you beauty and activity at the same time. The beauty is obvious from the colors. The beauty is caused by hot stars that have just formed in this big cloud of gas.
Star formation is still a very active process. So a lot of times, people know in their head “there’s a bunch of stars out there”, but what we don’t realize is that the universe is very, very active. Stars are still being produced out of these big clouds of interstellar gas. The big ones are bright enough that the photons of light will go out and ionize the surrounding gas out of which they formed, and create this beautiful, colorful display. Behind this colorful region is a much larger, darker cloud where stars have not fully turned on yet. They are called proto-stars. And you can’t see them in this image, but I have seen them with radio telescopes, which is what I do my own research in, and with infrared telescopes. So we use different kinds of tools to study different aspects of space.
And of course, it’s that advancement in technology that’s enabling us to understand and see things that we would never have seen before. Gas and dust clouds fill these things we call galaxies, which are collections of hundreds of billions of stars and gas and dust between them, and there’s certainly stars where the light just blends together, and forms especially in the core, these very bright regions. You can also see, in the background of this particular image, other galaxies that show up. So I find this particularly beautiful. And I’d like to point out that astronomers – I’m not the the only one – other astronomers have found this galaxy beautiful, so they named it, poetically, NGC-13 Unique. (Laughter)
Galaxies can sometimes interact. These are two galaxies that are close enough to each other that the gravitational pull between them is distorting their structure a little bit, but this we thought looked like a rose, with the rose petal and the rose stem. Here’s just a – I don’t have time to go into details on this, but you can see from this plot, our technology has increased our ability to understand our place in the cosmos.
And so this – I’m mentioning this to this group because this is an example in how technology itself, which can be used for good things or bad things, but in this case technology, being applied to our study of nature, has really enhanced our understanding of where we fit in, and the immensity of the cosmos. You start with Galileo down here in 1600 and move over the last four centuries. And what’s on the upper axis, what’s rising here, is the sensitivity improvement over what you could see with just your bare eye. And this is a logarithmic scale. So every tick mark up is 10 times better than the tick mark below it.
So you just see the enormous improvement from what Galileo could see, up to modern times, where we’ve learned how to take photographs, how to do electronic recording. And then we’ve gone into space, which takes us two orders of magnitude above that with the Hubble telescope, and then we’ve actually sent astronauts up to improve the Hubble telescope five times. And so the last one was a few years ago, and that took us off the charts here. That was the servicing mission four – which was the fifth servicing mission, yes. (laughter)
So it’s just fabulous how the technology improvements have opened our eyes to things that make us ask the deeper philosophical questions. Who are we? How did we get here? What are our origins? What’s going to be our future? So there’s our telescope. It’s also interesting how there’s an interaction between the technology, the cosmos, nature, and people. So we’ve had astronauts, engineers, writers, bureaucrats, managers, politicians, the public, everyone working together to make, in this case, something good happen.
These are the astronauts from 4 years ago that serviced the telescope for the last time. And they put in new cameras and repaired some of the other ones that are still in there, and they did a marvelous job. And so, we have images like this, but it helps to get perspective. So if we pull out and look at the same region with a ground-based telescope, we see something like this. Now, I don’t know if this is going to – see, that’s where – there’s a little film there that was going to zoom in, but I can’t get that to work on this thing. [So let’s just, rather than me trying to – Well, I don’t know if – it’s not worth wasting. [This is one piece of technology we can’t get right. There’s, there, thank you for doing that. Thank you very much.] All right, so this is the ground-based broad image of this field. We’re gonna see – it’s moving a little slow here, but this is zooming in to this globular cluster… ever so slowly… (laughter) Anyway.
I think maybe it’s a little tough on this computer. So anyway, the picture is, you zoom in to this globular cluster in the core, and eventually you see that star field that we just were looking at.
[…] You know what, we’re also finding about stars is that we’ve always known that at least one star has planets around it, but now we’re finding out that other stars have planets around them too. This is an artist’s conception of something that’s real, it actually has been detected, which is another star with, in this case, six planets around it.
And so these exoplanets, as we call them, are being discovered at a very high rate now, and so we know of about at least 3000 systems now, outside of our own solar system, that have planets. This has changed – this is a huge change, you understand, because we’ve imagined that there might be planets out there for as long as humans have had imaginations, but we have not known if there were really planets out there until just within the last couple of decades, when we’ve started, with the technology, enabled ourselves to find them. We do not know if any planets are habitable for life for sure yet, but we’re finding more and more that are Earth-sized and [have] earth-like orbits and so forth, so it’s a hot topic.
Old stars will let go of their atmosphere in beautiful ways. Galaxies themselves interact – I’m speeding through this quickly, but these two galaxies are actually merging together in such a way that it’s inspiring all these hot spots of new star formation. So galaxies themselves are not stagnant, and in fact our own galaxy is on a head-on collision course with Andromeda galaxy in a few billion years. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it looks like in simulations that even when something like this happens, individual star systems and planetary systems don’t necessarily get clobbered and destructed, so. (laughter)
And finally, in my little space half of this talk – the universe is enormous in both space and time. We have galaxies like this, but there are actually hundreds of billions of galaxies like this, and our Milky Way is just one of them. This is the Ultra Deep Field that contains, at least in this tiny little pencil-beam area, you can still find a thousand galaxies. So each one of these galaxies could harbor hundreds of billions of stars.
And of course these galaxies are at different distances. Some of them are closer to us, some of them are farther away, and in fact, some astronomers try to find the most distant galaxies, which tend to be the faintest ones, and sometimes the reddest ones, such as in this picture of this blow up of this little red blob. It doesn’t look like much, but this is a galaxy shining to us from very far away, which means very far back in time. It’s taken time for that light to get to us.
And so in this sense, we’re looking – we think the universe is about 13.8 billion years old, and this galaxy is shining, just from within that point, at the first .8 of the 13.8 billion years. So galaxies were already starting to form way back then. And in fact our telescopes – this kind of pictograph shows you how as telescopes get more and more sensitive, we can see fainter and fainter objects, which means we can see distant things, which means we’re looking farther and farther back in time. So 1990 was here, here we’re with Hubble seeing back within the first few hundred million years of the universe, and future telescopes will take us back even farther than that. So we’re able to compare early galaxies with our own and our neighboring galaxies, and we find out that in fact, generations of stars that have come and gone throughout all these galaxies have produced heavier elements that we would rely on in our own epic for the formation of planets and for life.
So here’s another exploding star, putting stuff out in the universe. It appears that our universe, with perfect underlying physical laws (seeming to us) shows some kind of progression over time. The development of these galaxies, generations of stars, the production of stars, heavier elements, planets, and even life, eventually – at least in one planet.
And so that brings the question to many people, is there some kind of purpose for all this? If the universe has this kind of progressive sense, does that imply any kind of a purpose? And so now we’ve stepped outside of science proper, to a different kind of question. And so physicist Dyson said it would be surprising if it should turn out that the origin and destiny of the energy of the universe cannot be completely understood in isolation from the phenomena of life and consciousness. And the design of the inanimate universe may not be as detached from the potentialities of life and intelligence as scientists of the 20th century, from which he spoke, tended to suppose.
So here you’re starting to kind of think about how these different ways of thinking might overlap. And so now, let’s talk about this a little bit, and for the next – my final ten minutes here – I want to do more-science-and-religion- interface stuff. Do science and nature alone – what is the perspective of faith? And can science and nature prove or disprove God? This kind of thing.
And I often try to point out, at this point, what I think is a very basic concept – but we need to remember, that sometimes science is wonderful, but it doesn’t address all kinds of questions. Science answers questions of how and when and why in terms of physical cause and effect.
Religious faith mainly addresses questions like capital Why, is there a purpose, is there a God? How should we live our lives? And many scientists and religious people have found common ground in this whole realm of ethics. How do we use the science? Why are we doing research? What should we use it for? With the AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, our dialogue program is not designed to answer how science and religion do or don’t fit together, but rather how can we have better conversations about science between science and religious communities.
There are certain models that people out in the public sphere use when they talk about science and religion, and Rabbi Mitelman here has done a much better job than I in describing this on his Huffington Post blog. So you should check that out. But one model is this the contrast model, that there’s no conflict between science and religion because they’re answering different kinds of questions. I just sort of mentioned that.
There’s a contact model, which is a little bit more contact, a positive approach that looks for dialogue and interaction, such as ways in which science shapes religious understanding. And we’ve discussed some of that around the table today. Or – and public service, and how religion can sometimes motivate scientific pursuits.
So I think a contact model is probably something, in my own personal life, that is more what I live out. There’s something called a Concert Model, which I didn’t put in here, but in Geoff’s wonderful writeup, you can read about that, which is even a little tighter, I think, effort to bring science and religion together.
And then there is a Conflict Model, where the science and religious belief are just inherently incompatible, due to the different perceived concepts of how reality works in the physical world, that there’s no RAM for religious belief. So these are the kinds of models that are out there in public discourse and dialogue, and I think you’re familiar with these and public discourse, basically.
There are some perspectives that I think are interesting on faith and science. Again, for Freeman Dyson again, since they have this kind of non-overlapping-magisteria type of view – why are we here? Does the universe have a purpose? From where comes our knowledge of Good and Evil? These mysteries and others like that are beyond the reach of science. They live on the other side of the border, as he sees it, within the jurisdiction of religion. So he’s seeing that there are realms at which these two spheres are better adept at dressing. Francis Collins, the geneticist, says we can’t answer, through science alone, the answer to questions of “why is there life anyway, and why am I here?” and I think he asking us why as in a capital-w kind of sense, not simply in an evolutionary kind of sense.
Then there is this quote from Richard Dawkins, who’s talking about the sense of wonder and awe. And he says, I didn’t look through all this, but he says it is natural to feel this sense of wonder and awe and admiration when you look at the beauty of the world, it’s natural. A kind of religious reverence. But then he goes on, in his view, he says “you want to attribute it to a maker, to a Creator”. In his view, what science has now achieved is an emancipation from that impulse to attribute these things to a creator. So that’s one perspective.
And then, of course, this whole idea that science and religion are very different things is a Western way of looking at things. And so Virchand Gandhi said, “in our country” – and I believe he’s speaking of India – “religion is not different from philosophy, and religion and philosophy don’t differ from science.” So we have to kind of remember that this whole idea that science is over here, and religion is over here, is kind of a Western concept.
Our dialogue – I’m going to try to finish this up – I’m sorry Geoff, just a couple minutes here. Why are we doing this dialogue on science, ethics and religion at the AAAS, which is the nation’s largest scientific society? Well, it’s because of a recognition that religion is very important to many members of our society, and that in order for the AAAS to be something not only advancing science, but also serving society, the organization needs to be in dialogue with religious communities, because there’s a great interest in religious communities about science. “Advancing science, serving society” is the little motto of the organization. Our dialogue program brings together religious communities – in this case, this is a group of clergy members that we were working with, and are working with, to bring science more into the training of clergy and seminaries. And we brought, for a workshop, several members, seminary faculty members, to the Museum of Natural History, to talk about the exhibit on human origins there.
The kinds of questions where science and religion – and I think this will help us in our discussion this afternoon – what kinds of questions are we interested in? Here’s a smattering. Are we truly affecting the planet’s temperature? What should we do about it? How big is the universe? Could there be life on other planets? What’s our relationship to this planet? What’s the purpose of the universe? What does it mean to be human? What separates us from the animals, the other animals, if anything? What does science tell me about being human? What do religious texts tell me about being human? What do scientists know about human origins? What does neuroscience say about who I am? Are things like love merely a chemical process? Is there such thing as a science of prayer? Here’s an interesting one. Do my thoughts determine my actions or my actions determine my thoughts? – there’s some experimentation that shows that your actual unconscious mind has made choices before you feel like you consciously made that choice. And so, which is driving which? And can theology and science come to complementary conclusions?
These are the kinds of things people are asking. It’s not all just about origins and evolution. It’s about other things. Our program has addressed things like Can science explain everything? And I think there’s an implicit discussion out there in the public sphere right now that, eventually, science is going to be able to explain everything. It’s going to be able to explain why we’re religious, it’s going to be explained why we have a sense of altruism. It’s not necessarily true. Can science really explain everything, or is there more to reality than just the kinds of things science can address? Exoplanets and life beyond earth, faith of modern physicists, this is a symposium that we’re holding next year on the 20th century physicists who made such profound advances in the field. What were they – interestingly, they had the faith backgrounds that motivated their physics, which is quite interesting to look at. What about modern interactions between religious groups and science and public policy, in particular, evangelicals? We had a symposium on that. “Are we only our genes?” and “are we only our brains?” is another question. What about synthetic biology and what about this ever-increasing brain/ machine interface, ever fuzzing everything?
And so anyway, I mean, I don’t have time to go through all this, but there are many, many issues. […] Digging deeper, I think some of these things are crucial for science/religion interface understanding. One is that values and worldviews and concerns shape how people see science. Authority figures is one of them. Who’s telling them about the science? Do religious people look to different authority figures than non-religious people for questions regarding science? Questions about motivations on the part of religious communities and scientists toward each other. Do we understand, or falsely, or truly perceive different motivations between scientists and religious people? Understanding scientists themselves have a broad range of personal religious and philosophical beliefs.
I referenced the work of sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund. And some people question what baggage does science carry along with it. Does science bring with it, necessarily, a materialist world view, reductionism, even atheism? So these are concepts affect the public discourse on science and religion in a positive and negative way. All right, there’s lots of other questions, questions of evil, suffering on other –
I’m going to leave you with this quote, because I’m over time, but this afternoon if you want we can show some more of these these slides. But this young student, this girl, is visually impaired, but she’s looking at the same kind of space nebulae that we were looking at. But she’s looking at it with her fingers. These images have been textile-coded so that nebulae feel different from planets, which feel different from starts, which feel different from comets. And when I spoke to this group of visually impaired students, they were every bit as excited and filled with wonder and awe by looking at these space images with their fingers as we are when we look with our eyes. So there are different ways of perceiving the wonders of nature and feeling, I think, a sense of wonder about it.
And so I’ll close with this particular slide. There are different responses people have to looking at the universe, into nature, and I’m not here to advocate one or the other, but one is the sort of Carl Sagan perspective (who, by the way was a big inspiration to me going into space, was his Cosmos program), but he said “Who are we – we find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in the galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of the universe.” That’s one perspective.
The other is seeing the same thing, but maybe coming to a different personal conclusion. The Psalmist, in this particular Biblical translation, said “Oh Lord our Sovereign, how majestic is your name and all the Earth, when I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you’ve established,” – again, that sense of insignificance – “What are human beings that you’re mindful of them, moral that you care for them? Who are we” – we’re humdrum, right – but then he goes on and says “yet, you’ve made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor, you’ve given them dominion over the works of your hands, you put all things under their feet and I kind of see that as…
Rabbi Artson’s Presentation:Read Transcript
Geoff Mitelman: And we are thrilled to welcome Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, who holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstone Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. He is also vice president of the American Jewish University and teaches courses in ancient and medieval Jewish philosophy, modern and contemporary Jewish theology as well as homiletics.
He received his doctorate in philosophy and theology from the Hebrew union College Institute of Religion, focusing on the integration of science and religion and advocating process theology, which I’ll share a little bit more about this morning. A cum laude graduate Harvard University Rabbi Artson in some ways an intern for the United States Senator Alan Cranston and U.S. Representative John Burton. Before working at the Ziegler school, he served as the rabbi of Congregation Eilat in Mission Viejo, California, which is a Conservative synagogue, and then was executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and a member of the senior management of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Rabbi Artson is on the board of several Jewish organizations and teaches students of all ages. He is the author of seven books, many weekly columns in both print and online, and over 180 published articles. He’s just published his newest book – which you can buy here, we have copies of this – called “God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology”, so please join me in welcoming Rabbi Bradley Artson.
Bradley Artson: Thank you everybody. Because I’m a rabbi and not a professional scientist, I don’t have cool slides, (laughter) for which I apologize. But I do want you to know that I’m from Los Angeles, and Dr Wiseman, we also have proto-stars, we call them waiters. (laughter)
Jennifer Wiseman: They have those here in New York.
Bradley Artson: Proto. proto-stars. So. What I want us to do – and there’s a lot to pack into 15 minutes is–
Jennifer Wiseman: I couldn’t pack it into 15 minutes.
Bradley Artson: I’m not as famous. So I want to think about another approach to the question of integrating science and religion, and why we should bother. And what you heard was a superb version of the Plato-through-Kant understanding of how to integrate the two. It’s one that I have limitless admiration for – really, Kant is in my pantheon of heroes – although I think it’s a dead end. And I think that that approach is now one we need to transcend, for our own survival’s sake.
So here’s what I want to lay out. The idea that there are separate magisteria, that science answers these kinds of questions, and religion answers those kinds of questions, is just not true. So scientists are all the time, as scientists, using value judgments to determine what kind of scientific research is worth pursuing, and which kinds aren’t. Or what topics are valid scientific topics and which ones aren’t. Or notions you heard, eloquently and persuasively put, of which star formations are beautiful, or which galaxy is insignificant or marginal. There, you’re hearing values creeping in to the setting of a scientific agenda, to the pursuit of a research agenda.
And science isn’t value-neutral, nor can it be, because it’s got a direction, and because it’s done by human beings, and because it’s always embedded in a particular culture. Now what I’m not saying is that there’s a Japanese physics, and an American physics, and a Yemenite physics. Ultimately, physics has ways of speaking cross-culturally; that is one of the strengths of science and one of its beauties.
But it isn’t and shouldn’t be value-neutral; it’s always asking “meaning questions” because that’s part of what drives the fascination with science, and what moves it forward. And religion has never, to my mind, restricted itself to questions of meaning, right. Every religious person I know has an opinion about whether the sea split, is there or is there not a God, do you survive death? – these aren’t “meaning” questions, these are not mere metaphors, although some people understand them as metaphoric.
But most of the people who do them, who engage in them seriously, are doing it because of something bigger. They are in pursuit of truth. And I think that’s what’s motivating scientists also, is the pursuit of truth. So rather than fashioning separate magisteria that only work when you have theoretical science and theoretical religion, but don’t apply to actual-what-scientists-are- doing or actual what-religious-people-are-doing, I’d like to look at the actual phenomena, and I’d like to fill a different base.
So here’s what I’d like to propose, and then I want to step back and start again. I’d like to propose that what science has been extraordinarily successful at is the investigation of public and recurrent phenomena. And so the question is, are public and recurrent phenomena the only phenomena, or are there other phenomena that are neither public nor necessarily recurrent? Everybody with me? Right. Now, I don’t know about you, but I remember the first time I saw Elana – I’m assuming you don’t remember the first time I saw Elana. If you did, don’t tell me. (laughter)
It’s not really a verifiable moment, is it? Where I looked at her at Friday night at Harvard Hillel, the last stanza of Adon Olam, and I said to myself, “wow, that’s someone I need to know.” Now, that was based on no assessment of data that I was aware of; it was an intuitive leap, informed by 14 billion years of evolution, give or take, you know, the 0.8 stuff. The universe is actually younger than I thought, which is bad, because we’re showing our age, so (laughter).
That’s a sensitive subject. (Laughter) A cosmos that is showing its age. So what I want to make an argument for is not for the old dichotomy of natural/supernatural, which is the dichotomy that Plato established, that Aristotle advanced, that Kant reified, and that has reached a dead end. I don’t believe that the universe is a dead machine. I do not believe that there are some items that occupy space and time, and then there are some items that do not occupy space and time, and we call those things spiritual. So the universe is a great big dead machine, but there’s this Casper the Ghost we call God, and then the body is a big dead machine, or a little dead machine, and inside this dead machine, there is this Casper the Ghost called the Soul.
That kind of dualism is destructive on every level. I’ll give you just two for-instances. One, if the world is a big dead machine, then you can pilfer it the way you pilfer your toy chest. That’s not a moral issue, that’s a survival issue, right. But that approach to the universe, as something to be exploited for our short-term gain, is literally killing us, right? So that theology teaches disdain for life, and disdain for our bodies, and disdain for the planet. It’s something we can no longer afford, and it’s no longer scientifically respectable, in my opinion. It was in the time of Plato. Based on the evidence that they had, that was a reasonable way of accounting for the information. It hasn’t been for easily 200 years.
OK, so if that’s not the case, then, rather than a bifurcation of natural – which is the dead stuff that occupies space and time – which, by the way, then produces an insurmountable intellectual challenge; if the world is made of dead particles interacting, then how do you explain that a tiny little percentage of it erupts into self-consciousness? Scientists and philosophers have been flinging themselves at that problem for 500 years with absolutely no success, right. You can tell me how the neurology works, I know that. You just can’t tell me why wet feels like wet. You can’t tell me – you can tell me the hormonal what-happened when I looked at Elana across that Hillel, when I will admit my attention was not really on the liturgy per se – (laughter)
It was a “wow” moment. Right, but what you can’t explain is the feeling. And what science risks reducing itself to, by holding to this dichotomy model, is that rather than explaining the world, it explains away the most important parts of the world. What does it feel like?
So I’d like to back up, and I’d like to start from a different place. I’d like to say we are completely and 100% natural, we human beings. We are, in fact, the only part of nature that we experience from within. And so it is reasonable to extrapolate from us to the rest of nature, with which we are continuous.
That is to say, then, I’m aware that I have consciousness. I am aware that I have self-determination. Even my physicist reductionist friends, and yes, I do have them – who believe that if you had sufficient data, you would be able to plot out the entire course of everything – so that there’s a pre-determinism that shapes us, and we have the illusion, because of our biology, of making choices – even those people pick what school to send their kids to. Even those people choose what neighborhood to live in, or which job offer to take. They act as though their choice matters. Here’s what I want to tell you – when your ideology and your life diverge, go with life.
So I want to start from the inside, saying that I can’t explain anything in my life, unless I start with self-determination and consciousness. And so I’m going to address the problem of what used to be dead matter by saying there is no such thing. What there is is a continuum of mindfulness. And that continuum of mindfulness has expanded within our lifetime radically.
I’ll give you two of my favorite examples. So my son Jacob, who is severely autistic, communicates with a technology called facilitated communication. We hold a whole keyboard to him – we started when he was eight by holding his hand and pushing away from the keyboard, and he would push the letters.
Speech is a very complicated series of micro-movements, but this is one big major movement. So it’s much more manageable for someone who has a movement disorder, which is what autism is. Well, we’ve now moved to the place where instead of having to hold his hand, we’ve been creeping up his arm for the last decade, and now we do his homework holding him here, on the back of his upper arm, or on the top of his shoulder. All those people who thought that autistic kids can’t have a mind, don’t have anything to say – we’re not just holding Jacob’s shoulder, and Jacob says “fuck you.” I endorse that message. (laughter)
But the message has taken other places. So there was a guy in Scandinavia who was supposedly in a vegetative coma. And for 17 years, he’s been in bed, not moving, while doctors have been telling his mother “there is no brain activity, you should pull the plug.” And a nurse who is trained in facilitated communication put a board to his toe and said “Can you hear this?” And his toe wiggled for a moment. Can you imagine being trapped in the cocoon of your body, listening to your mother saying “I’m not pulling the plug,” and hearing all the experts say “there’s no one there,” for two decades?
My favorite experiment of all time is – so, slime mold. Slime mold. There’s a professor at a university in Tokyo who did an experiment with slime mold where he put them on a glass plate which had broth over it. Slime mold, when it’s at a comfortable room temperature, will grow at a fairly constant rate. That’s happy slime mold. When it gets cold, the slime mold retracts and stops advancing. It’s a protective mechanism, you’ve done it in New York winters as well. So – that was culturally insensitive for me to say. (laughter)
So, he did an experiment where every 30 minutes, he turned the temperature to freezing and then turned it back up again. For 30, 29 minutes, the slime mold is happily expanding. Crank the temperature down, the slime mold stops. Turns it back up, it warms up, it starts moving again, 29 minutes later, turns it down, it stops. By the fifth cycle, at 28 minutes, the slime mold stopped advancing. So then he went a couple cycles leaving the temperature on. By three cycles later, the slime mold just kept growing. Then, 30 minutes later, he turned it freezing. But 29 minutes after that, the slime mold stopped.
Now, were that a human being, you would call that anticipation. Don’t blow my line, thank you! I appreciate that. You would call that advanced planning, you would call that foresight. They don’t have a neurology. They not only don’t have a brain, they don’t have nerves. But there there they are, they’re doing it.
So I would like to posit that there is mindfulness appropriate to every level of creation. And because I don’t believe in a spirit/body dichotomy, what I want to say, then, is I don’t believe in supernatural, I believe in super, comma, natural, apostrophe. I’m gonna write that down.
Nature, it turns out, is way more magnificent than the reductionists and the Newtonians thought it was. Nobody anticipated dark energy or dark matter, did they? But you can’t read all that astronomy stuff now without finding out that the matter that we thought of as the only matter is in fact the tip of the Goldberg. (laughter) It’s just the bare essence, right. And most of what motivates our universe is imperceptible directly and unmeasurable directly. How’s that for a conundrum? Now, who’s talking mystery?
We find out that 90 percent of the cells in your body are not primate cells. You, in fact, are an entire society, and you, like the Western economy, have farmed out the undesirable tasks to a whole lot of bacteria, without whom, first of all, you’d lose a lot of weight, but that would be right before you died.( laughter) If you only relied on your human cells, your digestive system would collapse instantaneously, which is what happens to you when you take anti-bacterial medication for whatever bug you’ve got, and then you get sick afterwards, right.
So it turns out we aren’t really solitary substances banging into each other on the outside. What we are is recurrent patterns of energy that connect with all other patterns of energy internally and instantaneously. And we are forever accommodating the choices of every other pattern. Right now, I want to be clear here because people freak out about this – I am not saying that the electron sits there thinking “gee, you know, I noticed that the neighborhood’, crowded I think I’m going to switch to a different energy role.” I’m not. But what I’m saying is that electrons make moves that respond to their environment, appropriate to electrons. And molecules do that as well, and systems do that as well, and cells do that as well.
And we think of ourselves as a single thing, but what you really are is a society. I am Camp Brad Artson, right. And I am an organized society that retains constancy over time, while shifting over time. And I believe that’s true of the cosmos as a whole. Which means I no longer understand God as being outside the system; I believe that God permeates the system. And that God’s permeating the system means God does not and cannot break the rules. God risked creating a universe that could be a partner in self-creation. And God infuses us with a vision of what is our optimal next choice and then awaits our free decision. And once we decide – optimal, by the way, in terms of love, justice, compassion, experience. You know that internally, you know it internally, you don’t need clergy or scripture to tell it to you, although it helps to have a second opinion. Right, so we rely on each other, we rely on our traditions, to help give us clarity about those who are what is already in our heart. That’s why when someone teaches something that feels right, it feels right. It’s like being gifted what you already have, but you didn’t know you could.
And it seems to me that that’s where religion and science need to meet. They need to meet in the recognition that we have actually don’t have separate questions. We have separate methods. But they’re not so separate as inter-packed meaning, and I want to say this as clearly as possible. Because I’m a teacher of philosophy, I’m going to say it in philosophical categories. If I had to choose between the modern Jewish thinkers and the medieval Jewish thinkers, I will tell you flat out now, the medievals are my home base. Right, I hang with the medievals. Because Rav Sadya, who by the way, said that line, that concept, but he said it in 900 Baghdad, and nobody gives him credit – when you say it in German, you get much more credit – Rav Sadya, Maimonides, these guys asked big, universal human questions using Jewish tools to fashion their answers.
But the modern guys switched it around, they asked getting itty bitty little Jewish questions, using universal academic tools to address those questions. Jewish survival, Jewish policy, Jewish political organization. Yeah, who cares. Really, I mean I care about Jewish survival, don’t misquote that. But Jewish survival will never happen from people whose primary agenda is Jewish survival.
What we need to be doing is pursuing wisdom in humanity. And it turns out Judaism, like Christianity, like Buddhism, like Hinduism, like Jainism, like secularism. And Ba’hai, of course, I’ve been to the Ba’hai Temple in Haifa, beautiful place. All of these traditions are pictures of a reality with which we participate and interact, and distill. All of them fall short of the reality that they are in relationship to. But without them, there is no way of relating to the reality.
That’s true for science also. Science is incredibly successful at addressing a particular method. But even the scientists have to go home, and even the scientists have to say “I love you, honey” and “I want to take the kids to the beach” and do all kinds of things that give life meaning that will never be reducible to science. And even the most fervent-of-faith people need to take their antibiotics all the way to the last date, because whether they believe in evolution or not, the bacteria do. (laughter)
So what I’d like to propose is, what science can do to religion is call out of bounds certain reality claims. When religion makes certain claims that are not simply in the realm of plausible, but makes claims that are simply false, then science’s legitimate role is to say “Look, here is the data. What you want to do with it? Want to say the world the 6,000 years old? We’ve got a problem.”
At Houston that actually is a big problem. Right. But what religion can bring to science, what religions can bring to science, is that it’s OK to have wonder, that it’s OK to intuit beyond what you know, that meaning is a process, because reality is a process, that we are all connected to each and to all, and that a faith rooted in those perceptions, a faith that won’t lie in public, is one that rises above the chilly and frenetic debates.
I was on a debate with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. One of the least pleasant nights of my life (laughter), because they weren’t interested in understanding, they were interested in scoring. But that night, I had easily 50 atheists come up to me and say “you could be my rabbi.” Because there is a human hunger, not for dogmatism and false certitude, but for joining the flow, for being in the process, and taking a moment to appreciate it. For savoring our instant of consciousness in that vast cosmic space time bubble, and for taking our place in saying “the great thing about the cosmos we live in” – apologies to Sagan – “is there is no center to this universe, nor, then, is there some backwater.”
And geography aside, I think our sun is the coolest star in the solar system. The coolest star in the cosmos, because here we be. And any system that could self-create such a thing is permeated with a spirituality that we need to embrace to be able to be fully human. And we can’t do it without science, and we can’t do it without religion, and we can’t do it with bad religion or brittle science. We need to grow. Thank you, Jennifer.